Virginia'™s Spring Turkey Forecast
September 30, 2010
Like many Southeastern states, Virginia's turkey harvest was down last spring. What will this year hold. (March 2008).
Photo by Bruce Ingram.
The gobbler must have weighed 30 pounds and after trying to sling it over my shoulder and failing, I decided that if I wanted to make it back to my vehicle without totally exhausting myself, I was going to have to carry the bird like a baby in my arms.
That's how that Friday morning ended last April 20, and I should tell you how that day and the first week of Virginia's spring gobbler season began. After having killed two birds back in the fall, I only possessed one precious tag for our spring season and felt confident that I would quickly punch it. But on the opening Saturday, a steady rain pounded the Botetourt County cattle farm where I hunted, and I never heard a gobble, although I did witness two very wet hens parade by.
Monday through Wednesday mornings saw cold and windy conditions. Two of those mornings were totally wasted as I foolishly pursued a field gobbler that had outwitted me three days the previous season. After Wednesday's misbegotten outing, I called Stanley Long of Fincastle to ask how he and his son, Buddy, were doing, and we agreed to go together to a Botetourt County spread.
While discussing the layout of the locale well before dawn on Thursday, Stanley let loose with a barred owl call, and five different gobblers sounded off. Stanley and Buddy took off after one of the toms, and the elder Long pointed me in the direction of where two of the other toms were located. For the next 90 minutes, the duo periodically sounded off and then they stopped.
I next looped around their last known position, sneaked to the edge of a field and peered outward. As I had feared, the old boys had entered the field and were strutting some 175 yards from my position. For the next 30 minutes, I called to the twosome, but they only moved some 25 yards closer and that bit of realignment was more a result of their feeding along a creek than being interested in my calls. At 8:10, I gave up and left for Lord Botetourt High School where I teach.
The next morning, the Longs and I were again at the same listening post, and once more, the same quintet responded to Stanley's owl imitations. But this time, I ignored where the roosted birds were gobbling and actually sprinted away from them and toward where the creek meandered through the field.
Upon my arrival in the pre-dawn murk, I could tell that my options were limited. Two points, where Virginia pines grow in great profusion, extend out into the field, but they both lie some 60 yards away from where the toms strutted on Thursday. What's more, both points have scarce cover at their ends, which would make me have to set up even farther away from the creek.
Finally, I decided to set up in a little patch of trees that grow right on the small stream. The area was too open to offer me solid concealment, but again the options were restricted. I placed a hen decoy in front of me; the deke, with luck, would serve to direct prying eyes away from my position. Meanwhile, the two longbeards had continued to make their presence known and dawn had now broken. I then emitted several hen yelps, and predictably the toms let loose with a paroxysm of gobbling for the next 15 minutes while I remained quiet. After two more yelps and with the toms now on the ground, I decided to go silent for the duration -- as did the longbeards.
But five minutes later, two explosive gobbles erupted directly behind me in the woods adjoining the field, and I decided that I had to risk pivoting toward them, even though they might glimpse me doing so. The repositioning luckily accomplished, momentarily, I saw a trio of longbeards emerge from the woods and move toward the creek bottom and myself.
The trouble now, though, was that I had no cover between the turkeys and myself and thus no way to raise my 12 gauge and level it on one of the group. For some five minutes, the threesome remained, periodically staring, albeit not overly interested, at the decoy, waiting for the fake hen to move toward them.
Then two of the entourage began to stroll away and disappeared and the third member was about to do the same, moving behind a small hump next to the creek. I quickly made a half pivot, leveled my shotgun and then fired when the third gobbler came back into view. After the shot, the tom disappeared into the creek.
I charged toward the gobbler and found him doing the "death flop" in two feet of water. Now you know why a 2-year-old tom with the requisite 7/8-inch spurs for his age could weigh some 30 pounds, although his dry weight was very likely less than 18 pounds.
My spring Virginia season came to a successful end, but many state sportsmen understandably struggled, as the 2007 harvest was 14,090, down considerably from the 2006 tally of 17,915.
West of the Blue Ridge, the total was 4,910, down 20 percent from the 2006 mark of 6,126. East of the Blue Ridge, the kill declined 18 percent from 11,069 to 9,180. Indeed, the stars, fate, weather and, most important, biology seemed to line up against us Commonwealth turkey chasers as we faced everything from a rainy opening day to a blustery first few days of the season to fewer turkeys being present.
Perhaps the most important biology-related factor was that the 2005 hatch was a poor one. Gary Norman, Wild Turkey Project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), explains why the kill declined in 2007.
"Poor recruitment in 2005 was a factor," Norman told me. "I had expected no change or a small decline, so yes, I was surprised by the (percentage of the) decline. But most states in the region also showed similar declines."
The VDGIF has kept track of poult production by means of analyzing feathers removed from turkeys checked in the previous fall. This analysis results in a lengthily named chart called the "Annual Poult/Adult Hen Ratio Determined from Feathers of Harvested Birds."
The lengthy name aside, this chart provides the best indicator of whether a future season will be a good one or not. That's because in any given season, 2-year-old toms are the ones most likely to gobble lustily and come to calling, whereas 3-year-olds will be far less likely to do so (feeling that by nature all they have to do is gobble a few times on the roost, strut and wait for hens to come to them), and jakes will, as always, be totally unpredictable concerning how they respond.
To explain further, the 2006 season was a better one than the 2007 season partly because the poult-to-hen ratio was better in 2004. Tha
t year, the statewide ratio was 3.1, compared with the horrible ratio in 2005 of 1.9. Further crunching the numbers, the 2004 ratio has been the highest this decade, though that figure of 3.1 is certainly not a high one. For instance, the 28-year average has been 3.1 with the years of 1979, 1980 and 1981 sporting legendary ratios of 4.9, 4.5 and 4.6, respectively. The only other years when the ratio was 4.0 or better were 1987 (4.0) and 1989 (4.2).
Lack of 2-year-old gobblers was not the only problem Virginia hunters faced last year, either.
Earlier I mentioned the rainy opening day, blustery opening week, and some cold snaps that also took place in several parts of the state, especially in far western Virginia over the first fortnight of the season. Norman said those, too, were negative factors.
"About 70 percent of the harvest comes in the first two weeks of the season," he explained. "Bad weather conditions prevailed during the early part of the season and probably contributed to the low harvest."
Given the critical nature of the poult-to-adult-hen ratio of two years before any given season, it is very important to know what the 2006 ratio was toward giving insight on Virginia hunters' fortunes for the 2008 season. Unfortunately, the ratio in 2006 was just 1.8 statewide. Indeed, the ratio was low in regions across the state: North Mountain (2.2), South Mountain (2.5), North Piedmont (2.0), South Piedmont (1.4) and Tidewater (0.8).
Based on these figures, Tidewater sportsmen may find it especially difficult to find hard-gobbling 2-year-olds this coming spring, as will individuals in the South Piedmont. South Mountain hunters should have a great many more turkeys around but certainly not large numbers. However, some good news does exist, the turkey biologist believes.
"Ordinarily, I would not expect a significant change in the 2008 spring harvest based on the 2006 reproduction, but the harvest rate of our radio-marked birds in 2007 was only 18 percent," Norman continued. "Previously, harvest rates have been much higher, as high as 50 percent. I think poor weather was the main reason for the low 2007 harvest rate. The bottom line is I think there was a good carry-over of adult toms (which will be 3 years old this spring) and that may compensate for the low 2006 recruitment. So, I hope things will be at least as good as last year and maybe better."
Norman's reference to radio-marked birds is relevant. For five years now, VDGIF personnel have been involved with the Mid-Atlantic Gobbler Study. Norman stated that one of the primary objectives of the study is to learn more about gobbler survival rates. Thus far, he said, as one would expect, legal hunting mortality rates are the highest cause of death. With on average so many radio-collared toms avoiding death in 2007, there may well be a fair to good number of 3-year-olds present this spring.
The next category of gobblers that will be about this spring is, of course, jakes. Throughout the state, poults usually hatch sometime between late May and early June. The young birds can typically fly up to roost sometime during their first 10 to 14 days of life. Therefore, until that time, the hen must shield poults from the overnight elements. That's why it is critical that the late-May to early-June period not have cold, damp conditions. When any area of the state experiences that type of condition, the increase in poult mortality can certainly contribute to a worse poult-to-adult-hen ratio.
In southwest Virginia where I live, the late-May to early-June period was fairly warm and dry and, not surprisingly, I observed good numbers of poults with hens last summer. My wife, Elaine, even witnessed one huge flock consisting of three adult hens and about 20 young, which would have produced, for example, a ratio of about 7.0.
So, a critical question for future hunting is, "Statewide, were weather conditions favorable for a good hatch?"
"The 2007 hatch looks promising," was Norman's answer. "Jim Clay (noted turkey call manufacturer) in Winchester said that they're seeing more broods than they've seen in recent years. Weather conditions were generally favorable."
This is certainly potentially good news, not only for more jakes being present this spring but also for those treasured 2-year-olds being about in 2009. Regarding long-term trends, Norman forecasts a 2.9 percent annual growth rate based on the spring gobbler harvest as a population index. The greatest room for improvement is in our North Piedmont and North Mountain regions.
This year, Youth Day will be on April 5, and the regular season will run from April 12 through May 17. From May 5 through May 17, hunting will be allowed from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. The limit will remain one bearded turkey per day. Hunters may take one, two or three bearded turkeys depending on how many turkeys were killed in the fall season. However, no more than two turkeys can be taken in the fall. Last words from Gary Norman?
"Take a youngster hunting during the youth hunt," he said. "Have hunters interested in our spring gobbler season survey contact me at Gary.Norman@dgif.virgina.gov or (540) 248-9389."
I have participated in the survey for well over 15 years and thoroughly enjoy not only doing so but also receiving reams of data about Virginia turkey hunting from Norman in the form of a booklet. The publication comes in the mail right before the season begins.
WHERE TO GO
Traditionally, outdoors writers have compiled top 10 county lists so as to give sportsmen insight on where to go afield. But Norman emphasized that the kill per square mile of forest index is a far better indicator of any county's turkey population. Much of what a top 10 list indicates is which counties are large and have at least fair numbers of birds -- but the lists do not necessarily indicate dense populations of birds in the larger counties. So, this year I will not even list the top 10 counties and will concentrate on which counties are producing plenty of birds for their size.
In 2007, the overall kill per square mile of forest figure was .56 with the ratios west of the Blue Ridge being .55 and east of the Blue Ridge .57. Alphabetically, the only counties topping 1.0 were Bedford (1.03), Floyd (1.05), Isle of Wight (1.10), Lancaster (1.48), Northampton (1.13), Northumberland (1.46), Richmond (1.02) Southampton (1.00), Surry (1.19) and Westmoreland (1.24).
Interestingly, only one west of the Blue Ridge domain was among the 10 counties that met the 1.0 requirement -- Floyd. In the western reaches of the state, Floyd County has developed a sterling reputation as a turkey hunting paradise, and gaining private land access there is much prized. In the Piedmont, Bedford is the sole representative and this county is a historically major producer of gobblers.
All the other counties rest in the Tidewater with Northampton lying on the Eastern Shore. Old Dominion sportsmen living in or near this region would do well to visit rur
al properties in any of these counties with the hope of gaining permission. Of course, there are several downsides to trying to find access. One is that probably no other region of the state has as many rural properties under lease as the Tidewater does. Two is that many of the farms here have been broken up into smaller tracts, meaning that hunters may have to gain access to two or three contiguous smaller farms in order to realistically pursue birds. In addition, three, the Tidewater has less public land than any other part of Virginia.
Counties sporting a ratio of better than .83, which is still an impressive number, include Carroll (.86), Charles City (.85), Cumberland (.81), Franklin (.90), Frederick (.80), Grayson (.85), Middlesex (.87), Prince George (.92), Scott (.83) and Wythe (.95).
I enthusiastically look forward to every spring gobbler season and will hunt every day until I tag out or the season ends. It's true that turkey hatches have been disappointing for much of this decade, but with a likely good hatch in 2007 and at least fair numbers of 2005 hatch members still around, the season to come should offer us plenty of opportunities to punch tags.
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